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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

A Colonel's Wake-Up Call

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Last week the ultra-nationalist newspaper Zavtra ran an interview with Vladimir Kvachkov, who has been charged in the attempted murder of Unified Energy Systems CEO Anatoly Chubais. In the interview Kvachkov, a retired special forces colonel, basically made the case for the necessity of a military coup in Russia. While Kvachkov didn't come out and admit his guilt, he asserted that the attempt on Chubais' life was "the first case of armed action in a war of national liberation" which every officer and soldier was duty bound to fight. Kvachkov seriously believes -- or at least pretends to believe -- that traitors and hirelings of the West have established a "regime of occupation" in Russia to please the "world Judaic conspiracy." He deploys a worn-out cliche as if it were an adequate description of reality. This enables the colonel to call the military to arms in a war of "national liberation" -- in other words, a coup d'etat -- and to present himself not as an accused criminal but as a valiant officer captured by the enemy.

Some consider Kvachkov just another soldier who couldn't cope with the rapid changes in the last decade, lost his marbles and became obsessed with the "Jewish question." Others regard the interview as a clever campaign stunt; Kvachkov is registered as a candidate in the upcoming State Duma by-election. Still others think that Kvachkov is being used by the Kremlin to frighten liberals into believing that there is no alternative to President Vladimir Putin or his chosen successor. But none of these theories explains the timing of Kvachkov's outburst of militant nationalism.

When some members of the top brass talked about a military conspiracy in the 1990s, the idea at least made sense. Pay for military personnel was routinely late and training was abandoned altogether. But the Army ignored the call to insubordination from such popular commanders as General Lev Rokhlin. Today, in contrast, soldiers get paid on time, the defense budget grows by 25 percent every year, and training exercises always seem to be going on somewhere. Top Kremlin officials talk about the aim of hostile forces to impose some form of "external control" on Russia, a notion that should appeal to people like Kvachkov. Such people should also be pleased that the Kremlin has largely given up on military reform. Despite all this, an organization of officers has emerged that espouses the overthrow of the current regime.

None of this really comes as a surprise. The attack on Chubais occurred shortly after two organizations -- the Military Patriotic Union and the People's Patriotic Party, led respectively by Leonid Ivashov, former head of the Defense Ministry's international directorate, and former Defense Minister Igor Rodionov -- tried to hold a meeting of military officers from across the nation. The announcement of the meeting in the newspaper Soyuz Ofitserov, or Union of Officers, contained anti-Semitic remarks.

Marginal military figures sensed that the officer corps was fed up with the regime's treatment of the armed forces. Bean-counters at the Defense Ministry were forever dreaming up new ways to raise salaries without raising pensions, even though by law the two are linked. Some 20,000 lieutenants who were promised 37,000 rubles apiece to help them buy apartments wound up with nothing. Junior officers in the army are essentially serfs whose lives depend entirely on the whim of their commanders.

All of this is the direct result of the effort to maintain a huge conscript army at any cost. The Defense Ministry wants to maintain strategic parity with the United States, even though Russia's defense budget is some 30 times smaller. This inevitably involves cost-cutting, and the top brass are saving money on the one resource that has always been short-changed in this country: people.

Soldiers like Kvachkov need to be provided with a clear vision of the world and of their place in it, and with the sense that they are serving the motherland, not just earning a living. The Kremlin's pseudo-patriotic rhetoric doesn't satisfy them because they can see that the armed forces are being allowed to rot despite the current relative prosperity.

In addition, these people have believed all their lives that foreign enemies are lying in wait. They therefore view the indifference of top officials as evidence of a plan to destroy the armed forces. Their sterile view of the world makes them susceptible to extremist political programs. If we assume that quite a few officers share Kvachkov's views, and that they are probably officers with perfect service records who enjoy authority in the ranks, this situation is flat-out dangerous. The rejection of military reform in the face of the country's relative prosperity has left the officer corps feeling alienated from the regime and has allowed extremists to exert ever-greater influence on the army. Kvachkov's interview should serve as a wake-up call.

Alexander Golts is deputy editor of the online newspaper Yezhednevny Zhurnal.